One recent morning outside of the Somali capital of Mogadishu, Al-Shabab militants linked to al Qaeda loaded 700 displaced children onto buses, as their parents and the staff of Dr. Hawa Abdi’s hospital and camp looked on in horror. There was no guarantee that the children would ever return. In Somalia, it’s a common sight to see children younger than 12, awkwardly cradling Kalashnikovs twice their size, man the frontlines of a murky and escalating war that pits a powerless U.S.-backed transitional government against a well-armed group of mercenary killers and freelance gunmen.
Following a decade in which many Muslims around the world have perceived Islam to be under attack, these killers now borrow the name of al Qaeda to rape, to steal food, gas, land, water, and to control a population that has known nothing but nearly continuous war for longer than any other country in the world. The statistics related to Somalia’s conflict are staggering: 1.46 million internally displaced people; 4 million Somalis without regular access to food and millions more at risk when the region is plagued by increasingly frequent droughts; and up to 1 million dead from the two-decade-long civil war. And the militants count on the West’s fatigue to advance their power inch by inch. They also seize land from refugees, as they recently have at Abdi’s camp. Somalia has long been an "X" on al Qaeda’s idealized map of Dar-ul-Islam, the Land of Islam, since it stands at the strategic watery gateway to the Arabian Peninsula.
Now the militants are stealing children, like the ones they loaded onto the buses on this recent morning. They were taking them to a rally in support of al Qaeda and forcing the children to act in support of the cause of Osama bin Laden. To any outside viewer, it would seem like these hundreds of kids were devotees of Al-Shabab and militant Islam. But instead they had been abducted from Abdi’s camp, where women and men make decisions together, where children go to school, and where men caught beating their wives are sent to a storeroom prison. But Al-Shabab recently shut down the prison and took control of part of the camp. They have left the hospital running, for the moment, having already learned that Abdi’s nurses are not to be messed with. This time, with Abdi out of the country, the militants claimed they were only ones with the authority to run the camp, its prison, or anything else in Somalia. Abdi, who is currently in a neighboring African country for safety reasons, can’t return home.On the day that the killers abducted the camp’s children, Abdi waited anxiously by the phone, while the children’s despairing parents waited back at the camp to see what would happen. Would their children come back, or would they vanish into makeshift training camps to await almost certain death at the hands of U.S.-backed forces and African Union troops? Finally, at day’s end, dust on the road indicated the buses’ return. The children had come back—for now. This is a normal day in the life of Somalia’s millions of children, and their parents who are powerless to stop their abduction and transport to the frontlines of a forgotten war.POEM, from Modern Saints and MartyrsHawa sold her family gold to feedfirst 10, then 20, 30, 40, 50,60, 70, 80, 90, 100, thousandsquatting on her Mogadishu farm.Having nothing left to give,she sends the men to fish in sand.On the cracked veranda, her intensive care,the newest babies fail to thrive.Of 4, none will survive. She climbsthe hive of an unnatural hill—her houseguests’ grave.